Friday, February 29, 2008


If Mayor Bloomberg had decided to run for President, he probably would have suspended alternate-side parking for Leap Year Day. Now that he has announced that he will not run, and because he can't run for Mayor again, there's no incentive for him to remain popular. Car owners had better be prepared for congestion pricing, higher rates for meters, and God knows what all else.

I find myself wondering what saint had the bad luck to die on February 29th and therefore be feted only once every four years. My Italian hubcap calendar assigns this day to San Giusto, about whom a single piece of information can be found: martyr. Oddly, a group of people on a Yahoo Italia site were wondering about the same thing. Correspondents cited St. Oswald of Worcester (an archbishop, of Danish parentage, who died in England on February 29, 992, and if he isn’t the patron saint of misprints, he should be); Sant’Augusto Chapdelaine, another martyr, who had something to do with a Parisian missionary order; and John Cassian (ca. 360-435), a saint of the Eastern Orthodox Churches but a mere Venerable among Roman Catholics, who brought the Egyptian brand of monasticism to Western Europe, founding an influential monastery in Marseille, where his relics (head and right hand) are kept and his feast is celebrated on July 23rd (the weather is better).

In Italian, Leap Year Day is “bisesto,” which looks totally inexplicable unless you are a Latin scholar, which I am not. I fell back on Webster’s Second International Unabridged, where I found “bissext,” the root of the English “bissextile,” from the Latin bissextus (bis = twice and sextus = sixth): “An intercalary day in the Julian calendar, added to February every fourth year. It followed February 24, the sixth day before the calends of March, and hence was counted as a second sixth day.” It dates all the way back to Julius Caesar in 46 B.C.

The best answer on the Italian Web site was San Precario. Perhaps San Giusto, too, is one of those made-up Italian saints, like San Paganino (the patron saint of payday). His name might signify, instead of a solitary martyr, a personification of Divine Justice, or at least of the Great Equalizer—he who evens up the solar calendar with a second sixth day every four years—putting a Christian spin on a pagan innovation. If I had to make a selection from my own legion of the saints, I think I'd go with St. Hot Cross Bun. Once every four years, it wouldn't kill you.


All eyes are on Ohio this weekend, as Baby Dee makes a rare bissextile appearance in Cleveland: a homecoming show at the Beachland Ballroom and Tavern. I would love to go—if only I were crazy enough to drive across Pennsylvania for the second time in under a month, and that month February yet. Those of us who cannot make it to the Beachland will have to content ourselves with the video of Dee here that ran as part of the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s interview with her last Sunday (here). Today, I was happy to see, at the Virgin Megastore in Union Square, that Baby Dee has a bin of her own.

Thursday, February 28, 2008


The Eclair felt a little stiff this morning. Maybe she is feeling the cold. Cars are not like horses in that they don’t get frisky in the cold weather.

I was parked in a rare and unusual spot, directly in front of the car-rental agency down the street from my apartment. I found the spot on Monday, when I got back from Massachusetts, where I had gone to minister to the sick (which I am very bad at, by the way, so don’t get any ideas). While in Massachusetts, I had the cleansing experience of going through a car wash. Poor Eclair: I change her oil more often than I groom her. I was afraid that the duct tape holding her right eye in place would not survive the rigors of an automatic car wash. But it held, and it was good to see her all sparkly clean after a salty trip through snow and slush.

But I digress. I got back into town Monday at about eleven-thirty in the morning, an awkward time to expect to score any spot. I cruised my favorite 7:30-8 block, just for the hell of it. Toward the far end of the block, a man was getting a jacket out of his back seat. I couldn’t tell whether he had just arrived or was just leaving. “How long are you going to be here?” I asked. “A half hour,” he said. “Not long.”

I instantly set my diver’s watch so I would know when a half hour was up, and drove home, parked at a meter, unloaded the car, and then dashed back to see if I could catch the man and inherit his spot. I seemed to remember that it was a brown car, and so I settled in, double-parked with my flashers on, next to the car in back of him. After ten minutes, I began to wonder if I had the right car—had he been farther down the street, closer to the corner? Could he have come back before the half hour was up, and somebody else got to the spot before me? Meanwhile, across the street, a man was posting lime-green signs that said “No Parking Wednesday.” Bad news for the Tuesday/Friday folks.

After about a half hour, I gave up and resigned myself to the parking lot by the river (though I think they charge more if you show up this late in the day, if they even have a spot available). But I started my usual rounds, and damned if there wasn’t this beautiful spot (Monday/Thursday 9:30-11 AM) right in front of the car-rental agency.

I was back there this morning at nine, carrying a lovely little Italian chair whose seat needs recaning. It has needed recaning since last July. I am forever warning people not to sit on it, but this morning I forgot and sat on it myself. I tossed the chair into the back seat, bringing it that much closer to the recaner’s, and went across the street to the little independent coffee shop. As I was waiting, I noticed that this coffee shop has an extremely well placed mirror, a mosaic of large glass shards, on the back wall, where it brings in the street. I will have to remember this as I redecorate my bedroom.

I got in the car and headed for the nearest block where I still had a reasonable hope of finding a spot that would be good at ten. I buzzed the Sanctuary: nothing, despite my prayers to Our Lady of Lourdes. At the street where I wanted to turn left there was a bottleneck—it was garbage day. I had time to get out and make sure I didn't have a flat tire. I threaded my way through the stopped traffic to the next left (since when is this a two-way street?) and went around the block, and was waiting to turn right at the light when the garbage truck finally moved and let through a stream of cars ahead of me. Then someone snuck into the curb lane and turned ahead of me. My prospects did not look good as I crawled up the block, but finally I saw a spot: it was tight, and right alongside a double-parked cop car, and I had a solid line of through traffic panting behind me. I called on all my parallel-parking chops and swooped in with one masterly motion.... Came a honk from the car behind me. I had tapped it on my rearward trajectory. Now I nudged the car ahead, a limo. He could have helped out by pulling up a little, but no.

A young woman with long straight hair got out of the car behind me and was examining her front end. She came to my window.

“You HIT me,” she said, incredulously.

“I DID?” I said, just as incredulously. “Surely it was just a tap.”

“No, it was HARD,” she said.

This could be the beginning of a terrible day. The truth is I had forgotten that of course someone was sitting in that parked car: a fellow-alternate-side parker. I got out to take a look.

There was not a mark on her car—only the license plate, which juts out, was crunched a little. “You mean this?” I said, pointing to it.

She nodded.

“I’m sorry,” I said. It really did seem like nothing, but I know how it feels to have someone back up into you as if you were not there. “It was a tight spot, and you can see I was under pressure, with traffic waiting.” She did not look forgiving, but neither did she demand my insurance information. The cop was still double-parked alongside us, and made no move to intervene.

She got back in her car, and only then did I notice that the limo in front of me was obscuring a fire hydrant, and I was too close to it. So I had to go back to the woman I’d bumped—she had her laptop open on the front seat—and ask if she would please move back a little. The car behind her moved without my having to ask—there was very generous spacing between the cars—so she had no excuse, except, of course, that I had dented her license plate. “I promise not to crowd you,” I said. Then I got in and out of the car several times, like one of the geezers I am always complaining about, to see how close I was to her and to the curb, and to thank her for moving. I was very glad that I hadn't morphed into irritable-middle-aged-lady mode and told her, "Get used to it—you have to expect to get banged around a little if you park on the street." Which is, of course, the truth.

When we all got out of our cars at ten, the young woman walked up the block to meet her boyfriend, who had been parking another car. I felt it was outrageous that one couple should take two parking spaces, but I was relieved that she didn't bring him back to survey the damages. I took a good look at her car: a brand-new pale-gray Nissan Ultima, with at least three feet of clearance at both ends of its parking place. Then I looked at my car again: the ripple along the seam of the driver’s door, a memento of getting sideswiped last summer in Rockaway; the skeleton of the sideview mirror on the passenger’s side, dating from Thanksgiving; the eyepatch; the mangled license plates . . . It seemed to me to have an awful lot of character. But at least it was clean.

You know how you instinctively avoid a car that is all beat up, because whoever is driving it obviously has nothing to lose? That’s me. Watch out.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Let It Snow

Today is George Washington’s real birthday, and Mother Nature has intervened, along with Mayor Bloomberg, to arrange a snow day and make me feel both patriotic and prescient for sticking with my Tuesday-Friday spot earlier in the week. The news flash came last night, during the debate between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in Austin, Texas: “Alternate Side Parking Rules Suspended on Friday, February 22, 2008 for Snow Removal.” I did not watch the debate (for some reason, I couldn’t find it in the TV listings), but I did my civic duty by reading all about it in today’s Times, from seven-thirty to eight this morning, in the comfort of my living room instead of in the front seat of the unheated Eclair.

Already the Times reporters are filing stories from Cleveland, where next Tuesday’s climactic debate is scheduled to take place. There was a story today by Sean D. Hamill about a “peace palace” (here), where people can be trained in transcendental meditation, being built in Parma, a suburb of Cleveland. Building peace palaces all over the world was a project of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, whose death, earlier this month, I failed to register. As it happens, my family has its ancestral roots in Parma: my great-grandfather’s farm was there, on land that has long since been subdivided into a classic blue-collar suburb. (An official of Parma was quoted in the Times as saying, "What do you mean a 'Maharishi Peace Palace?' We're Parma, Ohio. We eat pirogis and drink draft beer.") Parmatown was my first mall, and in its parking lot I learned to drive, twice (once an automatic, with my father beside me in the Plymouth Fury II; later a stick shift, thanks to a very tolerant friend, in a crash course before auditioning for a job driving a milk truck—which I got!).

In another curious convergence of family and politics, my sibling Baby Dee is playing Austin tonight, in the wake of the Democratic debate. This is slightly better timing than her gig in Boston on the night of the Super Bowl. She is playing Cleveland a week from today, on February 29th—Leap Year Day—after the debate but before the all-important Ohio primary. Too bad Dennis Kucinich did not exploit the fact that he’s related to Baby Dee and lock up her celebrity endorsement. He might still be in the running. The peace candidate could have gone straight from a demonstration of yogic flying in Parma (also his ancestral land, of course) to Dee’s show in the Tavern of the Beachland Ballroom, in Cleveland Heights, where he could have requested Dee’s only overtly political song, “My Very Own Police Force,” about Rudy Giuliani. I think to myself (with apologies to Louis Armstrong), What a wonderful flaky world that would be.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Raging Broom

I left one thing out of my calculations for parking on Washington’s Birthday (observed): the Broom. The Broom comes early to this place. Last Friday, it appeared just as I was approaching my car, but not enough people were in their automobiles yet for the sweeper to get the job done—it was a shade past 7:30—so he circled around and came back about ten minutes later. This morning he was there when I arrived—again, at a shade past 7:30—idling at the corner, lights flashing, a mad bull pawing at the ground before it enters the ring. There was a garbage truck across the street, and a truck in front of me, and the owner of the car in back of me had not yet appeared, but as people arrived and got in their cars and the garbage truck left, the Broom went into action, nudging up behind each vehicle and beeping till that vehicle moved; it got harder for the cars to move, because through traffic was trying to thread its way between the alternate-side parkers, both those who had moved temporarily across the street and were hoping to be able to reverse into the excellent spots they had just left (ahem) and those who were not moving because there was no place left on the opposite side for them and they did not like the prospect of getting herded down the street and off the block by the Broom. Lots of honking. The Broom, deranged, made even the truck move, though it was poised to make a delivery. I ended up one car length farther west than I had been, leaving a big juicy spot in front of me, which the truck backed up into, ruining my dazzling view but keeping the sun out of my eyes.

The truck was from Secure Door and Hardware (“Your Doorway to Excellence”). The driver wore a plaid flannel shirt over a gray hooded sweatshirt, baggy jeans, a blue stocking cap, and orange work gloves. He had a beer belly and a limp. His truck wore Truck King mudflaps. It had wood paneling inside and notched strips along the walls with canvas belts to hold the armored doors in place. The truck driver and a man from the building unloaded small wooden frames and long metal strips, one big steel frame that took both of them to maneuver, and two heavy-looking doors that the building worker carried on his back, plus hardware. They were careful not to bump into my car or rest anything on my hood. Meanwhile, a truck from a food-service-equipment company out of Paterson was making a delivery to the hotel across the street. “Our Passion Sets Us Apart,” it said.

A silver-gray Honda from New Jersey pulled up and asked the truck driver if he would be leaving soon. “Five or ten minutes,” the truck driver said. So the Honda from New Jersey waited in a No Parking zone up ahead until the truck left, and then backed up into this perfect spot. I lowered my visor against the sun and watched the silhouette of the Jersey driver as he fussed endlessly, backing up, pulling forward, backing up again. He opened his door, opened his trunk, got out his briefcase, got back in his car, opened the door again and got out and got back in. I studied the pattern in his brake lights: a dot matrix of truncated triangles. He flashed them one more time as he locked the car, slapped down his side-view mirror, and left, with two minutes remaining before eight o’clock.

The day I leave with two minutes remaining, a cop will come by and I’ll get a ticket, so I stayed at my post. I turned on the battery to roll up the window, and the car radio was on, tuned to 1010 WINS: “It’s 37 degrees at eight o’clock on Tuesday, February 19th.” There is not another alternate-side-suspended day until Holy Thursday, more than a month away.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Higher Math

I am afraid I was unable to benefit from Washington’s Birthday (observed) today, because I have a Tuesday-Friday 7:30-8 AM spot that is just too good to give up. I thought of trying to shift into a Monday-Thursday spot, but even if I’d found one, on Sunday, say, with the same cushy hours, I’d have to go back again on Thursday, so it would still entail two forays, and as long as I’m going out there twice, I might as well go twice to the spot I’m already in, right?

February, of course, is the month of frenetic bogus holidays designed to make up for its being so suicidally depressing. Last Friday, February 15th, was Susan B. Anthony’s birthday. The great women’s suffragist got her start as a temperance booster, so her party is a dry one. A glance at the pictures of Susan B. Anthony on the World Wide Web will make you realize that it took a formidable woman to campaign successfully for the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. (It was added to the Bill of Rights in 1920, fourteen years after Susan B. Anthony’s death.) I looked in vain for any reference to our heroine in the Times or in the speeches of, say, Hillary Rodham Clinton. Can it be? Is it possible that just as Senator John McCain has to steer clear of George W. Bush so as not to damage his standing as the Republican candidate for President (in his heart, Bush is probably a Huckabee guy, anyway), Hillary Clinton cannot afford to be associated with a protofeminist? Surely as Washington is the Father of Our Country, Susan B. Anthony is the Mother of Us All. The Empire State Building was lit up in red-white-and-blue for her, anyway. At least, I think it was for her.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Land of Lincoln’s Birthday

My car is marked today with salt and strain from the Land of Lincoln as it sits in the best of all possible parking spots (Tuesday & Friday 7:30-8 AM; I parked on Sunday and don’t have to move till Friday), after a weekend drive to Chicago, where I heard Baby Dee play at the Empty Bottle, on the same bill as a marching band called Mucca Pazza (Mad Cow). Chicago is the headquarters of Dee’s record label, Drag City. Carl Sandburg famously called Chicago “city of the broad shoulders.” I would call it city of the huge potholes.

Mucca Pazza is fabulous and funny—they play everything from tubas to triangles, and everyone in the band wears a different marching-band uniform; they have cheerleaders, too. Unfortunately, it took a marching band to be heard over the roar of the bar crowd at the Empty Bottle. Dee did everything in her power to put on a good show, and succeeded with a discerning group near the stage, but was frustrated, and even cut short her gleeful encore number “I Am a Kinky Grizzly Bear with a Thing for Mormon Underwear.” I hope she had an easier time in Minneapolis and Seattle. I’m sure she will be a big hit tonight in Portland. I found a review of her new CD in The Badger, the school newspaper of the University of Wisconsin, and an item about her in a blog by John Donohue, of the New Yorker Goings On staff (January 31st), with a link to a series of video interviews in Brainwashed.

Meanwhile, back in the car, I discovered that my 1990 Honda Civic gets 355 highway miles to a tank of gas, or about thirty miles per gallon. I was aided in this discovery by my odometer, my owner’s manual (gas-tank capacity = 11.9 gallons), and the valet parking service of the Ambassador East Hotel (motto: Taking Parking Personally). I had thought of getting a G.P.S. for this trip, because, though it’s easy enough to zip across New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana on I-80, finding a specific address in an unfamiliar city, at rush hour, is one of my least favorite things to do in a car. But I had already made one auto upgrade: I had bought a portable CD player and an adapter that makes it possible to play CDs instead of cassettes on my car’s system and thereby opens a vastly wider repertoire of things to listen to on long trips, from the Traveling Wilburys to “The Confessions of St. Augustine.” Also I had a passenger: Alex, a young drummer from Glasgow, who was meeting up with Dee and the rest of the band in Chicago and was happy to serve as my personal G.P.S. by reading aloud the directions I had printed out from Mapquest. One generation of technological improvements at a time, please.

It was a long trip, through the sodden fields of northwestern Ohio and frozen corn stubble of rural Indiana and past the black smokestacks of Gary, but our arrival at the hotel felt abrupt. There was not even time to grab the doughnuts out of the back seat before the doorman, a Jamaican in a caped uniform, took my car keys and ushered us through the revolving door into the lobby. There, after a little while, I rendezvoused with a friend from Wisconsin, who had gotten us a discount at this fancy hotel by booking through the Internet. Alex went off to the Empty Bottle by taxi, and everywhere we went for the rest of the day we walked through the slush or took a taxi. I did not see my car again until the next morning.

As someone who generally parks on the street, I am naturally suspicious of valet parking. A total stranger takes your keys and your car and leaves you standing there like a fool, staring at a piece of salmon-pink paper that says “Claim Check.” It cost $41 to park overnight in Chicago. After settling the bill, we gave our claim checks to the Jamaican doorman, who called the garage. In a little while, a valet pulled up in my car. I left it idling while we waited for my friend’s car. She was now my G.P.S.: the idea was that she would lead me through the streets of Chicago to I-90, where I’d go east and she’d go west. But when her car was delivered and I got in my car, ready to follow her, it wouldn’t go. I turned the key in the ignition, and it started, and then stalled. “Something is wrong,” I said, waving madly at my friend to stop. The valet parker got in and gave it a try, and it started jumping all over the place. “Stop!” I said. Something was terribly wrong.

“You’re out of gas,” the valet parker said.

“That’s impossible!” I said. “Could I be that stupid?” I’d been congratulating myself on how in tune I was with my automobile. I had totally mastered the settings on the heater, for instance: temperature dial on warm, fan on low, air on recirculate, vents aimed at feet and hands (except when all systems were trained full blast on the windshield for defrost). And I had developed a delicate touch for the windshield wipers, as well: intermittent for drizzle, low with a squirt of windshield-washer fluid for normal rainy highway spatter, high in heavy rain, and high with two or three squirts of windshield-washer fluid when a truck barrelled past. I still hadn’t gotten the side-view mirror on the passenger’s side fixed, but I’ve ordered the part. I was even thinking of extending my stay in Chicago to make an appearance at the Chicago Auto Show, which had just opened to the public that morning. I was really feeling quite knowledgeable about my dashboard.

“Do you think somebody was joyriding in it?” my friend asked, and even in my diminished and humiliated state (I had found the key to the hotel minibar, and a nightcap of cashews and Honkers Ale had given me a restless night), the idea of a dark-gray, sober-looking 1990 Honda Civic four-door sedan being chosen for a joyride by anyone—unless it was a couple of nuns—was hilarious to me. But the car has a new idiosyncrasy: the lever that pops open the door to the gas cap isn’t working; I have to pry open the door with my Swiss Army knife. I now demonstrated this skill for the doorman and the valet parker, suggesting how easily someone could have siphoned the gas out of my tank. “Gas IS expensive,” my friend said, loyally. “My garage has video cameras,” said the insulted valet parker. “I will get a wire,” said the doorman.

The gas gauge did indeed register empty, and the doorman’s wire hanger came up dry. The reservoir of my memory, however, began to refill. I had last looked at the gas gauge at a rest stop in Angola, Indiana, when it had been half full. I’d gotten excellent mileage in Pennsylvania, which is a lot wider than Indiana, so I assumed I would be O.K. And I had been O.K. How likely was it that I had had exactly enough gas to get from Cleveland to the front door of this hotel in Chicago? I could not help it: I was outraged.

Still, the only thing to do was to put gas in the car and see if it went. “Think of it this way,” the doorman said. “You couldn’t have run out of gas in a better place.” I didn’t have a container for gas, and neither did my friend. The driver of a minivan service to the airport had a two-gallon container, full of gas, which he sold me for five dollars. The Jamaican doorman flung back his cape and applied the gas container to the tank, but the nozzle wasn’t angled correctly and the gas spilled onto the street. I had an attachment for a gas can in my trunk, left over from my motorboating escapades of last summer, and that worked. “It was thirsty,” the doorman said.

O.K., so I was out of gas. It still didn’t prove that the gas hadn’t been siphoned. I drove off, with very ill grace, behind my friend, who led me to a gas station (the doorman had given her directions), where I filled the tank. Then we took an inadvertent tour of Chicago’s craterlike potholes and, at I-90, parted ways with a toot of our respective horns. We spoke by cell phone a little while later, when I told my friend that I had figured it out: the only way for me to prove that I wasn’t so stupid as to run out of gas was to see if I could get all the way to Cleveland without running out of gas again. “Good luck with that,” she said.

It was risky, not to say stupid, but it did add interest to the drive through Indiana and Ohio (yawn) to see how far the car would go once the gas gauge registered empty. (By the way, “The Confessions of St. Augustine” has a very good bit about stealing pears, but it lacks narrative momentum.) Slowly it dawned on me that I could actually be proving myself wrong. I made it all the way to the gas station in Cleveland where I had filled up the day before, popped the lever, unsheathed my Swiss Army knife, and pried open the door to the gas cap. Then I checked the odometer (355 miles) and watched the meter on the gas pump as I filled her up. She was empty, all right: the pump registered 11.9 gallons, to the ounce.

With abject apologies to the doorman on duty last Friday morning at the Ambassador East Hotel and the valet at G.O. Parking of Chicago, from the mucca pazza who ran out of gas.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Giants vs. Kucinich

I can’t believe alternate side parking wasn’t suspended today in honor of the New York Giants' win in the Super Bowl. It’s also primary day, and Mardi Gras—three reasons to grant dispensation to the parking public. As for cleaning the streets, surely all the trucks will be deployed to sweep up downtown after the ticker-tape parade today. I can only conclude from this that Mayor Bloomberg has decided not to make a rogue's run for President. What a groundswell of support he would have had for his campaign, from football fans to car owners and Catholics, if not for this gross political miscalculation.

Speaking of which, it was with great sadness that I went to the polls today to cast my vote in the Democratic Primary. Yes, it’s true: in recent years I have freely admitted that Dennis Kucinich is my cousin. Well, he is my father’s cousin. My father’s cousin’s son, to be precise, and, to be a little hazier, the cousin was a double cousin: her father was my father’s father’s brother, and her mother was my father’s mother’s sister. Follow? I don’t think it was incest, but perhaps if the families had made a wider search for mates, Dennis would have had a bigger family and therefore more votes. Then again he wouldn’t have been born.

How often do you get to vote for your cousin for President? I thought the answer was "Every four years for as long as he lives." Imagine my consternation when, on January 25th, the news that he was withdrawing from the race, in order to concentrate on being reelected to Congress from his district in Ohio, was reported in the New York Times. Yes, the New York Times was finally covering the Kucinich campaign! It gave him a full half column, with a tiny photograph, on page A23. It was as if they had condescended to review Baby Dee’s new CD, “Safe Inside the Day,” or sent a critic to her recent show at Joe’s Pub. Astonishing! A breakthrough!

Family loyalty aside, what other candidate has his whole own category of jokes? Dennis Kucinich is right up there with light bulbs and Polish jokes. I thought for a while of collecting Kucinich jokes, but was overwhelmed by the enormity of the task. Here is David Letterman, on December 12, 2006: “Dennis Kucinich announced he was a candidate for President in 2008.” Beat. “In a related story, a tree fell in the forest.”

I’ve never met this distant cousin, and he doesn't look like any relative I know. When he appeared on Letterman last summer, I stared and stared, trying, if that's the right word, to detect some family resemblance. Was that nose a little like my grandmother’s, his great-aunt's? Did those ears look slightly familiar? The hair and eyebrows are way off—he must have gotten those from his father's side. My own joke was that he is the black sheep of the family: a teetotalling vegan in a clan of beefeating beer-drinkers.

Dennis Kucinich was still on the ballot today, and I was strongly tempted. I bent down the little lever in his favor. But then I bent it up again. Giants win.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Religious Experience

Last week, I received my bulletin from the D.O.T. saying that alternate side parking would be suspended on Wednesday and Thursday “for holiday observance” (Ash Wednesday and Chinese New Year). Normally, I would go out on Sunday morning at around eleven, hoping, trusting, willing myself to score a half-hour Monday-Thursday spot. But because I am leaving town on Wednesday, and have to visit the mechanic to make my car road worthy on Tuesday, I would be going against the grain: looking for a Tuesday-Friday spot, preferably one that would permit me to sleep in on Tuesday.

It was harder than I expected. For one thing, on my way to the car, which I had parked expertly, if I do say so myself, between two S.U.V.s on Saturday night, I detoured into a Catholic church to see if St. Blaise Day was still observed with the blessing of throats. The priest, big and self-satisfied-looking, in a brilliant green vestment, was winding up his sermon. He was a dramatic orator—too dramatic. I found a bulletin in the vestibule, which told me what I wanted to know: that there would be a communal blessing of throats after Mass. That was disappointing, and the Mass was nowhere near over—they were only at the Credo—so I fled to my car and started cruising for a space.

Many spots were near misses: too much of the car overlapped into a Loading Zone, or someone had got there just ahead me, or there was a heap of railroad ties alongside the curb and a sign that had been altered from “No Parking Tues. & Fri. 11:30-1 PM” to “Temporary Construction Zone—No Parking.” In one perfectly respectable spot a man was sitting in his car as if to pull out, but when I pulled alongside and rolled down my window to ask if he was leaving (the window works again, by the way, though it has a hitch in it), he wouldn’t speak or even turn his head in my direction. Somebody came up behind me and honked, so I drove on. I felt as if I’d run into that character Tepper, from the Calvin Trillin novel, and he wasn’t going out. I was getting a little desperate when I happened by a shiny black car that was just pulling out of an ample Tuesday-Friday spot, and I claimed it. Amen.

On the way home (and I was quite a ways from home at this point; the walk to and from the car is my main form of exercise), I got sidetracked by a little church tucked into a public housing project and dwarfed by a Con Ed plant. It was called St. Emeric’s—really—and its most prominent feature was a quonset hut in a parking lot. I went into the church in the spirit in which I visit churches in Europe: as a tourist. I know it’s rude, but I do it anyway. Mea culpa.

The service was in Spanish, and there was a large and gregarious Latino congregation. A band was playing, and a singer was crooning. There were two priests, a young one in green, who looked like a matinee idol, with lots of thick black hair, and an older one in white, partly bald. The Mass was almost over, but it still took a long time—there were marriage banns to be pronounced and such. Finally I caught the words San Blas and understood the invitation to stay after Mass and get our throats blessed. Along with everyone else, I crushed up to the front, where the mob gradually organized into two lines, one for each priest. Which one did I want to bless my throat? Women always go for the younger, charismatic priest: a harmless vehicle for romantic fantasy. But the people on the matinee idol’s side had to leave by the far aisle and go past the band. The people on the veteran’s side got to go past a side door and pop out into the sunshine. Isn't age and wisdom better than good looks in a priest? And might not this older priest have more of a connection with the tradition of St. Blaise? I chose the old guy.

While waiting in line, I studied the stained-glass windows. On one side, flooded with light from the direction of Con Edison, were the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection. All the figures had unusually large hands, and Christ looked like Cro-Magnon man, particularly at the Resurrection. Of the four figures on the other side I recognized only St. John the Baptist, though another was a bishop and one of them had to be Emeric. Of course, I would go straight home and Google St. Emeric and be amazed at the points of intersection in our lives. St. Emeric (1007-1041), the son of Stephen, the first Christian king of Hungary (and also a saint), died tragically in a hunting accident, killed by a wild boar (evidently, he was not under the protection of St. Blaise). The Prince was offered a share of the spoils when the Holy Roman Emperor wished to dissolve the diocese of Bamberg, the bishopric later occupied by our friend St. Otto. There is a Church of St. Emeric, with a Hungarian congregation, in Cleveland, not far from where I grew up. I never saw the church, or even heard the name Emeric, unless that was the name of Spencer Tracy's computer in “Desk Set.” It turns out to be from the Latin Emericus, which gave us the Italian Amerigo, as in Amerigo Vespucci, for whom all Americans are inadvertently named. St. Emeric (feast day November 4th) is the model and patron saint of young men. Though groomed to succeed his father and betrothed to a suitably royal young woman, Emeric led a monastic life, and she was going to be very disappointed.

Finally, it was my turn in line. The old priest clamped my jaws between the candles—tallow, with red ribbons—and blessed my throat in the name of St. Blaise. Of course, he was speaking Spanish, so I didn’t understand. It was just like the good old days.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

St. Blaise

I know, I promised no more saints, but that was before I realized that today was St. Blaise Day. St. Blaise, you may remember, was our protection against choking on fishbones and other harsh maladies of the throat. He was, of course, deposed by the Church back in the sixties, along with such inspirations as St. Christopher (patron saint of travel--the Catholic Hermes) and St. Philomena. Poor St. Blaise. I don't suppose there would be any point in stopping at the local Catholic church to get my throat blessed before I look for a parking spot.

St. Blaise was one of the early Christian martyrs (c. 316 A.D.), a bishop in Armenia, who hid in a cave among wild beasts to escape persecution by the Romans. He was good with animals. Hunters found him when they were looking for animals to use in their nasty pagan games, and carried him off to Agricolaus. On their way, they met a woman whose pig had been snatched by a wolf, and Blaise got the wolf to give the pig back. The Romans were amazed, but they threw Blaise in prison anyway, and he came to about as grisly an end as you could wish for a Christian martyr. Quoth Butler: "Licinius tortured him by tearing his flesh with iron combs, and afterwards had him beheaded." The only light note was that the woman whose pig had been restored brought food and candles to St. Blaise in prison. Hence the blessing with the candles.

St. Blaise is much on my mind today because of a song on Baby Dee's new album, "Fresh Out of Candles." She performed it with her band Friday night at Joe's Pub, the first stop on her U.S. tour. I first heard this song in Amsterdam, and people didn't know whether to laugh or not. I thought it was funny. Then I heard it on the CD and thought it was beautiful and poignant and funny. Now I've read the lyrics and I know that it is about loss of faith, and I still think it's funny, but in a bleak, hair-raising way. It's a great, great song. It's the revenge of St. Blaise.